It’s the onomatopoeic sound of a swarm of drones racing in perfect unison around a 230,000 cubic foot drone playground located in the heart of the Arizona State University campus. On the ground, 10 small unmanned autonomous vehicles track the swarm’s movement and follow closely behind.
The demo is one of the first in ASU’s newly unveiled Drone Studio – the largest indoor motion capture facility for drone research at any academic institution in the world.
More than 100 long-range Optitrack cameras are strategically positioned around the studio, tracking each drone’s movements to within 0.5 millimeters accuracy. The high precision motion capture system can take 360 measurements per second for up to 150 robots simultaneously.
The system, with its precision accuracy and complete software tracking package, is ideal for studying drone swarms, fast dynamics and large platform robots – three primary areas of focus for the Drone Studio.
Panagiotis Artemiadis, a robotics researcher in the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at ASU who is probably most well-known for his mind-controlled drone swarms, directs the new Drone Studio. In his latest venture, Artemiadis has set out to create a collaborative space where minds can meet.
“This state-of-the-art instrumented space allows multi-disciplinary teams of faculty to address research questions and problems that could not be addressed before, such as coordination and control of hundreds of robotic agents and human-swarm interaction among others,” says Artemiadis who serves as the principal investigator for the Drone Studio and director of the Human-Oriented Robotics and Control (HORC) Lab at ASU.
Artemiadis envisions a space where academic, government and industry research partners can come together to explore multi-robot swarming, cyberphysical systems and human-robot interactions – an especially rich area of study as package delivery companies, aerial photographers and hobbyists are making drones more ubiquitous by the day.
While understanding how people interact with these technologies is essential, research into coordinated decision-making and communication between autonomous systems, like self-driving vehicles, is also among the planned projects for the Drone Studio.
Stephanie Gil, an assistant professor in the School of Computing, Informatics, and Decision Systems Engineering, studies communication-aware controllers for multi-robot systems. She is one of the Vision Leads for the Drone Studio and her efforts have been integral to bringing the testbed to fruition and introducing potential collaborators to the space.
“This state-of-the-art instrumented space allows multi-disciplinary teams of faculty to address research questions and problems that could not be addressed before, such as coordination and control of hundreds of robotic agents and human-swarm interaction among others.”
“The ASU Drone Studio presents an opportunity for the academic community to push the boundaries of robotics research on a large scale, meaning large numbers of robots, large-bodied robots and high-speed robots,” says Gil. “I want the Drone Studio to inspire researchers to attempt new classes of experiments that capitalize on the combination of working in a large space with real-time tracking capabilities, to reveal novel understandings of how best to coordinate, control and model large robot systems.”
ASU’s Drone Studio is starting to create a buzz among academic researchers. This spring Gil led a group of robotics researchers from around the world on a tour of the space when it debuted at the 2019 Southwest Robotics Symposium.
Invited guests included renowned Stanford University roboticist Oussama Khatib – regarded by many as the father of robotics – and one of the first-in-the-field female roboticists, Ruzena Bajcsy of the University of California Berkeley. Both were excited to learn about the ASU’s newest large-scale research facility and the opportunities for collaboration it will bring.
From concept to reality
Opened in January 2019, ASU’s indoor drone studio is the culmination of more than five years of ambitious thinking and scrupulous planning by Fulton Schools faculty members. As Artemiadis searched for a self-contained space to experiment with drone technology, he soon realized the potential just 100 yards away from his lab – a former basketball gym that had sat mostly empty and grossly underutilized for several years.
“It started with me doing some experiments with a limited number of aerial vehicles there in late 2014 with Dean Squires’ permission,” explains Artemiadis. “Then I invited other faculty to use the space for their own experiments.”
In doing so, Artemiadis realized the potential of the space to dynamically track the motion of both robots and humans, and at its size, also realized its capacity to serve as a proving ground for researchers conducting work in fast dynamic robots, drones and human motion capture.
In May 2017, Artemiadis applied for an equipment grant through the Air Force Office of Scientific Research to purchase a motion capture system. As he waited to hear back, researchers across the Fulton Schools were learning about the promise of the facility and rallied to make the Drone Studio reality.
“Over the past several years, the Fulton Schools of Engineering have hired an excellent group of faculty whose research and teaching interests cover the wide range of expertise relevant to robotics and autonomous systems,” says Kyle Squires, dean of the Fulton Schools. “One of the impressive outcomes from that faculty group is the leadership they have demonstrated in launching new initiatives, from new degree programs to teaming for research proposals to not only conceptualizing new facilities but helping operationalize these facilities. This serves our students very well and continues to contribute to faculty successes in research.”
Together with support from the office of the dean, Fulton Schools faculty members contributed 49 percent of the funding to institute the ASU Drone Studio. The rest came from Artemiadis’ Defense University Research Instrumentation Program grant, which had been accepted by the AFOSR in fall 2018.
“I want the Drone Studio to inspire researchers to attempt new classes of experiments that capitalize on the combination of working in a large space with real-time tracking capabilities, to revealing novel understandings of how best to coordinate, control and model large robot systems.”
Transformed for translational research
Faculty and staff who have been around the university for a while – some even as students – may remember when PEBE 143 was just a gym where they took required physical education courses or gathered to watch the occasional intramural basketball game.
But athletes entering the transformed space these days will more than likely be working with researchers to model biological locomotive systems using the studio’s state-of-the-art positional tracking technology. Using the system, scientists can determine how robotic solutions can assist and augment human capabilities and provide motor rehabilitation therapy to impaired individuals.
As part of her recently funded NSF CAREER Award project, Gil plans to use the Drone Studio to develop technologies for search and rescue robotics. She will challenge the ability of teams of robots to behave cohesively in the face of infrastructure that limits their communication ability and capacity to coordinate over long distances.
The setup will mimic the real-world search and rescue scenarios where robots must be deployed across fields or in buildings, which can be disorienting for the robots and limit the ability for agents to exchange information. By providing real-time tracking capabilities, the Drone Studio can provide ground truth and lend Gil valuable insights into optimal coordination strategies.
Others in the Fulton Schools are also finding ways to utilize the new space. Already students from computer science Assistant Professor Aviral Shrivastava’s Compiler and Microarchitecture Lab have visited the Drone Studio to test intersection management concepts using robotic cars. Designing demonstrations that show how aerial and ground drones work together helps students explore software and electrical systems up close and in person.
Artemiadis and Gil are also reaching out to faculty in ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, the ASU School of Life Sciences and community groups to discuss ways to use the space for classroom instruction and outreach opportunities.
Faculty researchers plan to work with industry and government partners in the Drone Studio to explore occluded vision and communications in mock cities, investigate environmental disturbances using controlled wind and infrared light interferences, and analyze virtual and augmented reality interfaces.
As opportunities for research and collaboration grow, ASU’s new Drone Studio is set to become the premier destination for roboticists looking to explore the nuances of drone technologies and the incredible impact they can have on the world.